A robot construction worker that can move around a building site autonomously and make architectural structures is being developed by Swiss designers and roboticists. Jim Drury saw it for himself.
The In-situ Fabricator - or IF - is an autonomous construction robot - and could one day take its place on building sites. That's the plan of architects and robotics engineers at the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research Digital Fabrication. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF ARCHITECTURE AND DIGITAL FABRICATION, MATTHIAS KOHLER, SAYING: "What we see here is the In-Situ Fabricator, so that's the first machine that can actually go on construction sites and build non-standard designs, meaning designs which can vary and adapt to the local conditions directly in the building site." Not only capable of laying bricks into pre-programmed structures, IF's sensors and onboard computing help it build up a 3D site map linked to structural plans. SOUNDBITE (English) ROBOTICS ENGINEER AT ETH ZURICH, PROFESSOR JONAS BUCHLI, SAYING: "There is a lot of onboard computing, so there is two computers on board, one for the arm and one for the overall robot and on these computers we online calculate the required information for the robot to move and know where it is." The map allows the robot to always know its location, and before too long should help it move around construction sites unaided, adapting autonomously to minor design variations. At the centre, located at the ETH Zurich campus, the team is working on making the robot able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances - such as a dropped builder's tool, or a late design change. But will this mean the end of the human construction worker? Its creators insist not. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF ARCHITECTURE AND DIGITAL FABRICATION, MATTHIAS KOHLER, SAYING: "I think this will become a game-changer in construction, I believe so. I think that in the next five to ten years we are going to see mobile robots on the construction site, but they're not going to replace humans. They'll actually collaborate with humans, so the best of each kind of skills come together." One obvious advantage is eliminating the gap between planning a building and its construction. ....And it will never need a tea break.